Whiplash (Damien Chazelle, 2014)
I look back fondly on my days in the school concert band, where I did a pretty average job playing clarinet. My friends and I spent more time gossiping and laughing than we did actually playing the right notes. Luckily we didn’t have a cut-throat teacher like the one in this film – but that might partially be because the majority of us were too bad to respond to such motivation.
Director Damien Chazelle was initially unable to get funding to make Whiplash, because studios tend to be hesitant to produce films that are original and of good quality. So he turned it into a short film (also titled Whiplash) which went on to win the Short Film Jury Award at Sundance in 2013. Following this, he was able to make Whiplash into a feature film, and reportedly shot, edited, and submitted it to Sundance in ten weeks. There it won the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award. And if it isn’t at least nominated for Best Picture at the next Academy Awards, then that is a total farce.
Miles Teller plays Andrew Neyman, a student at the fictitious Schaffer Conservatory of Music in New York. Determined to become the next jazz great, he finds himself in Fletcher’s studio band, fighting like hell for a regular spot on drums. Fletcher is ruthless – he tears his students down to shreds, spitting profanities at them left, right and centre, keeping them in until the early hours of the morning. His abuse is almost funny because it’s just so far past the point of acceptable. He does all this to make them great, but does the end justify the means? One brilliant thing about this film is that at its conclusion, you’re still not sure. In Andrew’s case, the abuse only makes him work harder and be better. You marvel at his passion and his drive, but also wonder whether there comes a point when that passion should be sacrificed. The lengths he goes to succeed are somewhat disturbing, and he does so at the expense of personal relationships and his own mental (and physical) health.
Whiplash is – somewhat worryingly – based on the real experiences of director Damien Chazelle who was once a drummer in the Harvard studio band. He too had a highly intimidating teacher, though Terrence Fletcher is reportedly (and hopefully) a more exaggerated version. We’ve all had harsh teachers – some of them extremely good ones – but Fletcher takes the cake. Chazelle has joked about walking out of Full Metal Jacket feeling that it was the first film to reflect his own experiences, though in that case the plot centred on U.S. Marines, rather than student band members. Some have even nicknamed Whiplash ‘Full Metal Drum Kit’. I have never witnessed a film about music that is so freakin’ intense! The musical scenes are incredible– Chazelle has described his aim as “shooting a concert as though it was a bank robbery” and he definitely succeeds. You can’t relax with this film and you’re constantly on edge. And there is way more blood than you would expect for a film about music. When the credits rolled, I felt exhausted. But still hungry for more. I’m calling it now – J.K. Simmons is winning an Oscar for best supporting actor. Though we’re still yet to see many of the most likely to be nominated films, I am highly doubtful that anyone is going to top that performance. He is extraordinary. Miles Teller is absolutely stellar as well. He has played the drums since the age of fifteen – though not in the jazz genre – and upped his game for a film where he does almost all of his own drumming, which is CRAZY TOWN because he is CRAZY GOOD. What the actual hell.
I’m sure some viewers won’t like Whiplash – because it’s intense, primarily focused on music performance (not everyone’s cup of tea) and it may be perceived to have a questionable message. For my money, this is the best film I’ve seen this year. If you want to shit your pants in awe, this is necessary viewing.